Using GIS mapping to reframe post-conflict aid distribution – Sri Lanka as a case study

Everything looked dry as I gazed out from the porch – sandy with blood-red streaks. "Here's your tea, sister," said the woman. I ended up on her porch in the course of my fieldwork. "We're strong, you know," she paused. "We never left. We were right here when the army came to kill the Tigers," she said, referring to the effective elimination of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE, which ended the civil war in 2009.My family fled Sri Lanka in the 80s, and I was back, asking questions about thewar and postwar experiences. She didn't like that. "After the war, the government helped us rebuild our house. But after that, we haven't seen any improvements – except some roads. The government is taking over with heavy military, and none of our children are able to get a decent job out here.Nothing has changed." I heard her sentiment echoed throughout Tamil areas, and this is where my research starts: why hasn't anything changed since the war?

The Conflict

Sri Lanka, an island off India's southern tip, experienced a protracted ethnic and territorial conflict from 1983 to 2009. The Sri Lankan population of 20 million can be sub-grouped into 75% Sinhalese, 11% Sri Lankan Tamil, 9% Moors, and 4% Indian Tamils and other groups (Census 2011).[1]The national liberation struggle was primarily fought between Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government – a conflict fought overthe independence of the traditional Tamil homelands in the northern and easternparts of the island. Horizontal inequality was a major cause of the Sri Lankanconflict as it impacted access to education, employment opportunities,disparities in urban development, distribution of benefits from agriculturaldevelopment, and political exclusion of Sri Lankan Tamils. The conflict endedin 2009 when the Sri Lankan military defeated the LTTE. Subsequently, thegovernment focused on rebuilding and developing the entire island with helpfrom international loans and donors. However, the country still deals with manyof the issues which existed in the pre-war period, such as high youthunemployment and Sinhala resettlements to the Tamil Homelands. In 2018, nineyears after the violent conflict ended, around 8,000 Sri Lankans applied forasylum in other countries ( A deductive estimate would be thatmore than 200,000 Sri Lankans (mostly Tamils and Muslims who were targeted)left their motherland during this 26 year-long violent conflict.[2] More than 40,000 civilians died[3] during the last two weeks of the SriLankan conflict, which is now being called a genocide (see 'Tamil Genocide by Sri Lanka'by Francis Boyle). The end of the war also caused an additional 300,000 Tamils to beinternally displaced and detained in camps (Amnesty International, 2009). [OD1] 




Research Agenda Why Study Sri Lanka?

Given the nature and scale of the conflict, the role of international aid in rebuilding the SriLankan economy became pivotal. Yet, would that aid flow to areas most in needof post-conflict rebuilding? My research shows that aid did not flow to areasaffected by the conflict and inhabited by politically and economicallymarginalized ethnic groups. A reason for this lack of aid in the districts thatneed it the most could be due to ethnic bias, lack of access to those districtsbecause of bad infrastructure, or donors' ignorance about how different regionswere affected by the conflict. I argue that the reason for unequal distributionof aid during the post-conflict period is a combination of ethnic bias and donorsnot doing their diligent research on the intricacies of the grievances andinequalities initially leading to the war.

Why Sri Lanka?

Investigating aidallocation within a postwar country is not easy. How can you determine whichareas were most affected by the war and who would need aid the most? There arefive characteristics of the Sri Lankan conflict and the postwarpolitics makes Sri Lanka a unique case study forwithin-country aid allocationthat make it a uniquecase study for country aid allocation. :First, [OD2] 

The Sri Lankan conflict did not end with a negotiatedpeace settlement; it was a 'winner-take-all' end to the war - not a commonscenario. Most contemporary conflicts see an end with a negotiated peace (Sigdel, 2014). [OD3] For example, conflicts in Zambia, Namibia, and El Salvadorended with a negotiated peace.

Second, The Sri Lankan conflict wasrelatively contained in particular geographical areas (North and East). Hence,the districts affected by the conflict are easy to determine, which makes myidentification strategy easier for empirical analysis. Third,

marginalized ethnicities live in the districts that mostlyoverlap with the geographical areas affected by the war. Fourth,

in December 2004, Sri Lanka and several South Asiancountries were destroyed by a tsunami. In Sri Lanka, there is substantialoverlap between the areas affected by the Tsunami and the areas that were thecenter of the conflict (Figure 1). This overlap offers the opportunity to usethe aid allocation post-tsunami as a natural experiment. If aid is notallocated equally across the affected areas regardless of ethnic composition,it could indicate a pre-existing bias in the aid allocation. Finally,

one of the biggest donors in Sri Lanka at the moment isChina. Other donors include the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, OECD, Iran,and India. The more 'traditional' donors from the West have conditionalitiessuch as economic performance, governance reforms, and human rightsconditionalities. However, donors like China have little orno aid conditionality, or their conditionality is different than Westerndonors[OD4] . This makes aid conditionality less effective on theglobal scene and particularly less effective in Sri Lanka.

Given these five conditions of the SriLankan context, mapping and comparing the spatial distribution on post-tsunamiand post-conflict aid allows for some essential insights into the makeup,effectiveness, and ability of aid to construct a dignified post-conflict futurefor all Sri Lankans.  The method ofchoice here is a mapping tool called Geographical Information System (GIS)combined with political economy analysis. All findings are supported byeconometric analysis in my paper "The Role of Aid on Peace Consolidation in Postwar Sri Lanka."


FindingsWhereis the aid going?

Using the reconstruction efforts in Sri Lanka after the Tsunami inDecember 2004, I establish a baseline pattern of aid distribution. I start withaid projects committed after the Tsunami (2005) until the war ended (2009).Figure 3 shows the location of aid project commitments, irrespective of moneycommitted and categorized by donor source, in that time frame. Since theTsunami's devastation was concentrated in the Northern, Western, andSouth-Western coast, we should expect that aid projects would be concentratedin these regions. This expectation is confirmed given the high concentration ofaid projects in the South, Central, and the Southwest regions, but few Chineseprojects on the Northern coast. Surprisingly, there are fewer coastal projectsthan I expected after the Tsunami, even when population density is considered.However, an increase in coastal donor projects is apparent, and thus mypost-disaster baseline pattern doesn't reveal a clear political bias in aiddistribution.

However, political parity in aid distribution isnot the case when I examine the distribution of aid projects after the end ofthe civil war. Figure 4 shows the location of projects committed from 2010 to2014. My analysis did not show a significant increase in aid projects in theconflict-affected areas in the North and East, relative to the distribution ofaid projects immediately after the Tsunami. A common explanation in aid literature for why aid does not reachcertain geographical spaces is a lack of infrastructure: a dynamic calledtarmac bias. If one reason for the Sri Lankan aid allocation is tarmac bias,one would expect to see a significant increase in aid projects in the Northpost-2009, with the highway's reopening from South to North (A9) immediatelyafter the war. The substantial cluster in donor projects in the Colombodistrict follows the logic of post-conflict aid allocation: manycapacity-building projects would be allocated to the public sectors, and mostpublic sector headquarters are located in the capital city of Colombo.

Furthermore, an increase in Chineseprojects in the South is obvious (Figure 4). This can be explained by thecrucial role played by the then President (now Prime Minister), MahindaRajapaksa, and his cabinet in bringing in Chinese aid, influencing the locationof the Chinese and other donor projects. (New York Times, 2018).Patronage politics and corruption are essential factors in how aid wasallocated during the post-tsunami period. Patronage and corruption continue toinfluence aid allocation in the post-conflict period and today. The Sri Lankanpatronage political system allows powerful politicians to funnel money to theindividuals, groups, and places that most benefit them. Since most Sri Lankanpowerful politicians are Sinhalese, they assured that the majority of aid wasallocated in the South and West of the country (McGilvray and Gamburd ed., 2010). Since then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa is from the South, inparticular from the Hambantota district, he ensured that district's developmentwith Chinese money. In Hambantota, the Chinese have built a port that allowsthem access to the Indian Ocean. Additionally, the Hambantota airport (which isempty with almost no flights today) was also a project funded by China. Chinabecame an involved donor in Sri Lanka when relations with more traditionaldonors in the West turned sour due to accusations of war crimes committed bythe Sri Lankan government in the last stages of the conflict (Forbes, 2016).

Concluding CommentsThoughts

In my job market blog, I investigate whetherwar-affected districts were allocated more aid than areas not affected by thewar. The maps showed that donors do not follow the needs of the war-affecteddistricts when deciding where to distribute aid.Myresearch has clearly demonstrated that donors do not follow the needs ofwar-affected districts. Some might say that these districts'geographical location makes it hard for donors to reach those areas – tarmacbias. Yet since there has been at least one highway and railway road going fromthe Southern and Western parts of the island to the Northern and Easternregions, that narrative leaves researchers wanting. The war-affected districtsshould have been a priority for donors and the central government in thepost-war environment.

It is evident from the news, from discussions in the war-affecteddistricts, and with activists working in those areas: that local and centralpoliticians have neglected these districts. In the aftermath of the war, thegovernment is focused on infrastructural rebuilding and high-costbeautification development projects in Colombo city and has paid less attentionto the reconciliation of the ethnic groups and rebuilding the war-affecteddistricts.

Even with its unique characteristics, Sri Lanka is only one country ofseveral post-conflict countries where within-country aid allocation is far fromideal. My maps reveal that donors follow 'the path of least resistance' whendeciding aid allocation. However, simply throwing money at a problem hasrarely resolved anything, especially when it is not combined with properguidance and political acuity. . Donorsneed to know a country's history and understand thecomplicatedpolitical situationcontext that exists after a conflictand need to work with both central and local governments to identify where theycan make a difference. Assuming that aid is given to improve or maintainwithin-country relations, reconciliation needs to be a priority for donors whenallocating aid in post-conflict countries.

My future studies onthese topics will take aid disbursement into account, which was not availablefor this particular study. Nonetheless, the findings from this research areworrying since we expect the bias in actual disbursements to be even sharperthan in planned projects.


[1] The rest of ethnic groupsare usually lumped into a category called ‘others’.  The group includes Burghers (Eurasians), SriLankan Malays, Indian moors,and indigenous groups.

[2] The estimate is the author’sestimate based on the 8,000 Sri Lankan asylum seekers in 2018 multiplied by theyears of conflict (26) gives 208,000. A realistic assumption is that during theheight of the conflict a lot more than 8,000 Sri Lankans sought asylum in othercountries.

[3] This number may vary depending ondifferent estimations. There are no official numbers. The estimate ranges from1,000 to 40,000. UN estimates 40,000 (Al Jazeera, Nov. 28th 2013).

 [OD1]Clareplease embed these links into the text

 [OD2]Weshould avoid bullet points in our essays


 [OD4]Nara:Kevin Ghallagher’s research team has shown that China in many cases does haveaid conditionality, but that it’s along different axes. To make this statementless absolute, I hedged it a bit.

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Feb 26, 2021



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